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Eddie Milbourne, 60, founded his pet food company Symply Group in 2009, supplying high-quality dog and cat food to independent pet retailers. Turnover for the Chesham-based company employing 22 staff has gone from £950,000 in the first year to £21.5m in 2017.
The name of his brand, Canagan, is the ancient Celtic word for a wolf pup. The grain-free pet food is exported to more than 30 countries, with Japan accounting for 35 per cent of exports. Customers include the Queen and the president of Ireland.
Did you think you would get to where you are?
No, I did not. I knew I would be successful, perhaps coasting along with a modest turnover of a few million a year, but I never thought I would meet the Queen. It was the high point of my life, it really was. When the press interviewed everyone afterwards I was so emotional I could hardly talk, and my wife was the same.
I was largely brought up by my grandmother. Money was tight and we used to rent out two rooms to survive. My mother wanted me to stay on at school but I wanted to go and work in business.
At my primary school I started selling newts that I had found in a nearby pond. I was nine years old and took some into school, and could not believe the interest in them. I had a full order book for a year! I sold the small reptiles for 6p each and the big ones, the Trojans, for half a crown. I had a Post Office account and I reckon I made £30 that year, a huge amount of money then for a 10-year-old.
When you had made your first £1 million did you want to slow down?
We made £1m profit from Nutro products in 2002. In September 2008, when Mars took my world away.
I actually had £1.6m in the bank. I made my first £1m profit from Canagan by August 2014. However, what we really celebrate is monthly turnover.
Our first back-to-back £1m worth of sales was October/November 2014. My staff bought me a silver salver. I drank champagne with them and had more at home, and bought our Yorkshire Terrier Austin a new squeaky toy.
I could not slow down, because I had to increase that turnover. I am not a slowdown person.
What is the secret of your success?
I genuinely believe I create an environment that makes people want to work with me and brings out the best in them. It does not matter if they are staff, customer or supplier. I seem to have the same effect on all of them. I think it is because my journey is so credible, and to some extent people can identify with me.
What was your best preparation for business?
At Davis & Co, a solicitor, when I was 17 I started off repossessing cars. Within three months I was helping to repossess houses, and I designed a series of 60 standard letters that sped up the litigation processes. I knew about cars because I used to fix them up with friends at the weekends, out of necessity. The repossessed cars had to get three closed bids from three car dealers, and the highest got the car. When I saw how little they were selling for I put in my own bids. The vehicles were 25 per cent cheaper than they should have been on the open market. I suppose I was buying one car a month for £1,500 and selling it on for £2,000. I made twice as much from trading cars as my salary while working there for four years.
Do you have time for personal financial planning?
I deal with our household expenses. I’ve always done it because I like organising things. I am not one to track utilities deals or check interest rates. I would prefer to concentrate on earning money. I have never had any shares. I don’t believe in them because they are outside my control. I do have some Isas, but I don’t buy one every year.
Croydon, south London, May 1958
Harrow County Grammar School. He left with one O-level
1976: Worked for in-house solicitors Davis & Co of First National Finance Corporation, issued proceedings to repossess vehicles, then houses.
1984: Bought High Street shop Pet and Garden Pinner, age 26.
1989: Started Pet Plus Ltd, importing rawhide dog chews from Far East, selling to wholesalers across UK within 18 months.
1992: Launched Premium Pet Foods, importing and distributing American pet food Nutro.
2008: Lost Nutro contract, when brand was bought by Mars (Pedigree Pet Foods)
2009: Launched Symply Pet Foods.
2012: Launched Canagan grain-free dog and cat food.
2017: Won The Queen’s Award For Enterprise: International Trade 2017.
With wife Jenjira in Ickenham, Middlesex. His sons — Pip, 36, and James, 25 — are sales manager and director in the company.
What is your basic business philosophy?
To me, the customer is always king, even when they are completely in the wrong. I cannot imagine trying to build a business where you are constantly losing customers or staff. If a customer is not satisfied we will always offer a refund or replacement food. We will try everything we can to keep the customer, because if you can turn them around they become an ambassador for us.
What was the most challenging period of your career?
In the middle of the banking crisis, September 2008, Mars shut my business down and their lawyers made my 30 staff redundant. We distributed the American brand Nutro for 16 years. We had three warehouses on mortgage then Mars bought the brand and gave us 90 days’ notice and took over the distribution. I’d had 16 annual contracts from Nutro as sole distributor in the UK, but did not receive my 17th. At the same time RBS foreclosed on my mortgages on the warehouses. I renegotiated the mortgages with higher interest rates and stiff arrangement fees, and closed the company down over six months. We had 14 cars and fork trucks on lease. But we also began to develop the Symply brand that was similar to the brand we had been selling. The recession did not hurt me. I just had to get on with it, and take more risks. I decided to supply only smaller pet retailers. Having been a pet shop owner, I wanted to support independent trade.
Do you want to carry on till you drop?
No, because I am 60 years old, I am probably 50 per cent deaf, I need strong reading glasses in good light, and I have two really bright youngsters working alongside me, Charlie — our commercial director — and my son James who will take over the business.
When I am working less I would love to have two toy terriers, play more golf and improve my game. I look forward to spending more time with my wife, who does not work.
I plan to find an animal welfare charity that I can identify with and put time and money into supporting it, because I owe everything I have to dogs and cats.
Have you made any pension provision?
I never bothered with a pension until I was 50 and I only did that on the advice of my accountant.
Personally, I think a couple of flats might be better than a pension. I must have paid into mine for eight years.
I stopped in early 2016 when the tapered annual allowance came into force for high earners, which meant my annual allowance would be capped at £10,000.
When it went down to £10,000 from £40,000 it was not a meaningful enough amount to bother with. The fund is worth £250,000, but I would have liked to contribute £1m or more.
Do you allow yourself the odd indulgence?
We only fly business or first class. We took the whole family — myself, my wife, two sons and their girlfriends and my mother — to Pangkor Laut off the west coast of Malaysia. It is a fine, tranquil resort that occupies the whole island, with a maximum of 120 guests. You can wake up in the morning and find two or three monkeys on the balcony.
Do you believe in leaving everything to children?
Yes I do, almost everything. When you start out with nothing you absolutely want to give everything on a plate to your children, so my sons are very fortunate.
I was born in 1958, the Year of the Dog in the Chinese calendar. As I have worked with and sold dog-related products all my life, I feel that the Dogs Trust is the right choice for 10 per cent of my wealth.
What is the most you have ever paid for a bottle of fine wine or champagne?
It was a number of bottles, too many, of Cristal at £350 each on the night of July 11, 2017, when we met the Queen. Afterwards we joined our staff and entire family for dinner at a Kensington restaurant, Beach Blanket Babylon. It has an elevated round private dining room surrounded by marble pillars, and is rather special.
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